At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.
New York: Random House, 2002. xii + 528 pp. Bibliography, source notes,
index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-375-50324-2 .
Christopher Waldrep , San Francisco State University.
One day last January, I pulled my bicycle out of the garage
and pedaled for the nearest Barnes and Noble. I was looking for a new book
by Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black
America, already praised in The New Yorker and elsewhere. I
suppose all shoppers instinctively understand that the managers of
bookstores organize their inventory in a strict hierarchy. Just inside the
front door I encountered the bargain bins. Passing through a second door,
I squarely confronted the first display table, exhibiting the hot new
books, including novels by Nevada Barr and John Grisham.
I knew Dray's book would not be there, so I turned to the
new nonfiction table, just to the right of the bestsellers. I scrutinized
the titles, but it was not there. Disappointed, I walked to the history
section deeper in the store: Not there either. Finally, I asked a clerk
and she retreated to the back, emerging with three brand-new copies of
At the Hands of Persons Unknown. Just three, I noticed. Barnes and
Noble did not think that many of its customers wanted to read about
lynching. This book would quickly disappear into the bowels of the history
section, to be found only by those determined to search for it, reading
titles spine by spine.
Dray's book was easier to find at the 2002 Organization of
American Historians meeting in Washington, D.C. There over two thousand
historians streamed through the book exhibit, where Randon House
prominently displayed At the Hands of Persons Unknown.
In some ways this seems an odd judgment. The general public
could learn much from this book and enjoy reading it. At the Hands of
Persons Unknown is well written and covers an undeniably important
topic. Dray tells stories with a novelist's eye for the telling detail. He
takes us, for example, to 1916
Waco, where a mob crowded
into Judge Richard Irby Monroe's courtroom. Faced with a mob, the judge
"sighed and requested merely that all 'gentlemen' remove their hats"
before continuing with the trial (p. 217). And Dray's book is
encyclopedic, a narration not only of the ugly violence called lynching
but of black
America more generally. In five hundred pages he describes
the boxing match between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, the movie Birth
of a Nation, scientific racism, the work of Franz Boas, the Harlem
Renaissance, the Scottsboro boys case, Gunnar Myrdal, The Ox Bow
Incident, Jackie Robinson, and much, much more.
Professional historians will have troubles with this book.
There are no footnotes in the traditional sense and the source notes,
keyed to page numbers, seem skimpy and incomplete. The inquiring reader
will find some quotes simply not attributed to any source. For example, on
page 452 Dray quotes U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark as saying that
federal legal action against mobs rested on "a very thin thread of law."
In the back of the book, there is no source note for any of the
information on page 452. In fact, all the pages from 446 through 452 are
missing from the source notes.
Dray stuffs his stories with journalistic detail, making
them very readable.
Early in the book Dray describes the Sam Hose lynching and
the events leading up to it. On page 8, Dray provides a detailed narrative
of Hose's supposed crime, explaining that the information came from the
family of his white victims. At the bottom of the page, Dray reports that
various newspapers, government agencies, and individuals put up a $1600
reward for Hose's capture. There is no source note for page 8. There is
for page 7, but the source for that page documents quotations from W. E.
B. Du Bois, not the details of the Hose lynching.
Dray has an amateur's fascination with "firsts." According
to Dray, the first "widespread application of Lynch's Law" came in North
Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana, in the form of "Regulators" (p. 21). Yet,
the well-documented work of eighteenth-century regulators seems
"widespread" as well. Ida B. Wells was "the nation's first antilynching
advocate" (p. xi). This ignores T. Thomas Fortune, who denounced white
racial violence well before Wells. The "first carefully written analysis
of a lynching death" came in 1916, according to Dray, when the NAACP
published an article in Crisis about the Jesse Washington lynching. Surely
Dray does not want to say that Ida B. Wells was not careful in her
analyses. In 1920, the
"shattered" an "old taboo" when it fired into a lynch mob, Dray writes (p.
274). There was no such taboo. Dray dates the first "'scientific' analysis
of lynching as a social phenomenon" to 1930 (p. 304). Perhaps The
Tragedy of Lynching, published by the Commission on Interracial
Cooperation, really was more scientific than the Chicago Tribune's
yearly tabulations or the work of Ida B. Wells, but Dray does not explain
how or why. Life magazine's photograph of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey
and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price at their trial for killing Mickey
Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney was "modern America's first
good look at a lynch mob." Perhaps America was not yet "modern" when
William Bradford Huie interviewed the killers of Emmett Till? Perhaps the
various drawings, photographs, and descriptions of the thirty-one lynchers
tried in South Carolina
does not count because--well, why wouldn't that count? What about the
lynching postcards mailed over the United States and recently exhibited?
Dray relies on this series of "firsts" to advance his story, but the
"firsts" often seem dubious at best.
Dray makes mistakes too. He describes
"the lone slaveholding state to remain loyal to the Union" (p. 47),
Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland. Later (p. 337), he comes
perilously close to saying that Prohibition "brought into being" organized
crime. Nor is it accurate to say that Franklin D. Roosevelt thought
lynching "was not actually a major problem requiring a statutory remedy"
(p. 358). FDR did not support the antilynching legislation pending in
Congress, for fear of losing southern support for his New Deal programs,
but his attorney general created the Justice Department's civil rights
unit, which made a major effort to prosecute lynchers under existing
Reconstruction-era civil rights legislation. Roosevelt recognized the need
for a "statutory remedy;" he just hoped that an old statute could be that
Dray repeats the false statement that Willie McGee,
executed by Mississippi for rape in 1951, served in the military (p. 398).
And he writes that Screws v. United States marked the first time
that a lower federal court had convicted anyone acting "under color of
law" since Reconstruction (p. 441).
There are lots of flaws here. Nonetheless, this is the
first book to chronicle racially-motivated mob law from the Revolution to
the present since James Elbert Cutler published Lynch Law: An
Investigation Into the History of Lynching in the United States in
1905 (reprinted, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969). Academics will
not rely on this book in their scholarly work and probably few will assign
it to their students. Its length alone forecloses that market. Mob law is
our national crime, yet so invisible that one historian confessed he only
"learned about white people massively lynching black people" in the
1960s. One would think that more than three customers strolling the
Barnes and Noble near my house would want to read a well-written history
of racial violence in America and would recognize the topic as important.
Even if its author does not always provide citations for his quotes and
thinks Kentucky was the only slave state not to secede, one would hope
that the first catalog of racial violence published since 1905 would find
. 325 U.S. 91 (1945).
. Joel Williamson, "Wounds Not Scars: Lynching, the
National Conscience, and the American Historian," Journal of American
History 83 : 1229.
Library of Congress
Call Number: HV6464.D73 2002
* Lynching -- Southern States -- History
* African Americans -- Crimes against -- Southern States
* Southern States -- Race relations
Citation: Christopher Waldrep . "Review of Philip Dray, At
the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America," H-Law, H-Net
Reviews, April, 2002. URL:
“The best that can be
said for At the Hands of Persons Unknown is that it brings
together, in a conventional and uncomplicated narrative, some of the
recent scholarship on lynching and the antilynching campaign. What
readers will not find is a book that advances or enriches our
understanding of lynching… The need remains for a perceptive and
intelligent overview of lynching in the United States.”
W. Fitzhugh Brundage,
review of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black
America, by Philip Dray, The Journal of Southern History 69
(August 2003): 725-726.